SERMON ON THE SUNDAY BEFORE THEOPHANY
BY HIS EMINENCE ARCHBISHOP TIKHON (АРХИЕПИСКОП ТИХОН)
FIRST HIERARCH OF THE RUSSIAN TRUE ORTHODOX CHURCH
2023, Omsk, Siberia
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it hath been written in the prophets: “Behold, I send forth My messenger before Thy face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee; the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; be making His paths straight.’” There arose John, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance toward remission of sins. And all the land of Judæa, and of Jerusalem, were going out to him; and all were being baptized in the Jordan River by him, confessing their sins. And John was clothed with camel hairs, and a leathern belt about his loins; and he ate locusts and wild honey. And he was proclaiming, saying, “The One Who is mightier than I cometh after me, the strap of Whose sandals I am not fit to stoop down and loosen. I indeed baptize you in water, but He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit.” (St. Mark 1:1-8)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“Behold, I send forth My messenger before Thy face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee,” says the prophet Malachi. The Holy Evangelist Mark begins his Gospel with this prophecy. And there is a touching mystery in this. Why do both the prophets and the Evangelist call John an angel, although he was only a man?
Firstly, because John, by his life, became like a heavenly angel, and of all mortal people he came closest to the angelic residence [жительству ангельскому].
Secondly, so that you and I know: the purpose of Christ’s ministry on earth is to make angels out of men; to make that which is mortal, sinful, and enslaved by an uncouth character immortal, sinless, and free from the bonds of the natural world, which the angels in heaven are. How did Saint John the Baptist become like an angel? First of all, by obedience to God, then by his freedom from the world, and, finally, by his lack of carnal cares for this life. Angels are completely obedient to God. The inexpressible mysteries of God’s wisdom, power and love are constantly and directly revealed to them. Their obedience to their Creator is based not on necessity and self-compulsion, but on joy and humility.
If we look at the life of St John, we can see many similar things. Born of elderly parents, he was left an orphan in early childhood, and God became for him the only Parent, the only Support, the only Love. Therefore, Saint John from his very infancy was devoted to God and relied on God in everything, was completely obedient to God. His father was a high priest, and this may have strengthened John’s knowledge of God. His conception in the womb of an infertile mother, accomplished by the power and will of God, could not remain unknown to him. He knew that an angel of God announced his birth and he knew the prophetic words of the angel: “For he shall be great before the face of the Lord, and in no wise shall drink wine and strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the sons of Israel shall he turn around to the Lord their God. And he shall go forth before His face in the spirit and power of Elias.” All this was unerasably carved into the heart of little John, as if on stone tablets.
God Himself directly revealed His will to him, and he received all knowledge in communion with Him. In his separation from the world, John completely cleaved to God, like the angels of heaven. Like the angels, he drank directly from the Source of wisdom, strength and love. That is why the prophet calls him an angel. The world was dust for him, men were a scattered herd for him, having lost their shepherd.
Not clinging to the world, John, as an angel of God, did not have the slightest fear of it. Therefore, he so fearlessly denounced the nobles of Jerusalem, to whom other people bowed: “O offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” And on Herod fearlessly he pours out his denunciations for everything that Herod has done that is vile before God. John does not reckon with anyone except the one and only Living God and His holy will. He distinguishes people neither by clothes, nor by nobility, nor by anything else, but only by the properties of their souls. His eyes see not bodily people, but naked human souls, which are hidden for others by their bodies. Only the angels of God have such freedom from the world and men. That is why the prophet calls John an angel. He probably, like the Apostle Paul and many other saints of God, often did not know whether he was in the body or out of the body, for he learned complete carelessness for his fleshly life, [and was] constantly practicing it.
But there is another prophecy about St. John the Forerunner. The great prophet Isaiah says this about him: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; be making His paths straight.’” And if the first prophecy relates more to the personality, to the character of Saint John, then this second one is more concerned with the nature of his ministry, his mission. So what should be his ministry? It is to cry out in the wilderness, to warn the people that they might prepare the way of the Lord.
By desert is meant not only the desert beyond the Jordan. The desert refers to all mankind. The desert also means the old human soul, separated from God and dwelling in the darkness of death.
“Prepare the way of the Lord; be making His paths straight.” How do you do that? Confess and repent, and do it without delay, for the Lord is coming. He will knock on the door of every soul. This is what St. John the Baptist called for. The way of the Lord and His paths are human souls, the crookedness in them are sins and iniquities. According to the Holy Fathers, the baptism of John only prepared people for the baptism of Christ and was more of a sign, and Christ’s baptism is a true baptism, by which a person is cleansed from sin and becomes a new creature, is adopted by God, and is included in the number of full citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.
It must be said that St. John the Baptist knew human nature to its most secret depths, knew all its weakness, susceptibility to evil and inconstancy. He learned this during the thirty years of his solitary life in the wilderness. His victorious battle with himself gave him an inexhaustible knowledge of human nature. His knowledge was not from books, but firsthand, from God through personal experience. That is why his preaching is practical. He didn’t [merely] take people’s word for it.
Even when a person sincerely confesses and sincerely repents for his sins, John does not trust him. For he knows the weakness and fickleness of human nature. Knowing this, Saint John insists with all his strength that the repentant confirm their words with deeds. For a person who has sinned for a long time, sin becomes a habit. Virtue must now become his skill, and this can only happen after much practice in virtue. “Produce therefore fruits worthy of repentance,” cries out St. John the Baptist, looking doubtfully at those who momentarily repent. But these fruits of repentance, which St. John calls to create, are not enough to save the soul from sin. This is only enough to merit the people to come before the Savior. This was the task of the Forerunner – to sound the alarm, so that people would be cleansed at least a little.
Looking at the terrible Prophet, to whom the whole country of Judea and Jerusalem went out, listening to his unusual threats about the ax and fire, people asked him: who are you? And he declared without denying: “I am not the Christ… I am a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ even as the Prophet Esaias said.” And he humbly acknowledged and confessed: “The One Who is mightier than I cometh after me, the strap of Whose sandals I am not fit to stoop down and loosen.”
Christ came to teach people forgotten humility and trampled obedience. He gave the perfect example of His own humility and obedience to His Heavenly Father. And His Forerunner gives us an example of sinless humility and obedience to Christ.
People who do not have humility and obedience do not have wisdom and love. And he who does not have them does not have God. He who does not have God does not have himself; the soul of such a person is darkness and the shadow of death.
And if Jesus Christ is too exalted an example for us, then let us strive, at least to the best of our ability, to imitate the humility and obedience of St. John the Baptist, in the hope that our humility and obedience will lead us to the Sun of Truth and Love – to the Lord Jesus Christ Who is the only salvation of men – yesterday, today and tomorrow – and forever and ever.
Returning to today’s Gospel reading, I want to draw your attention to the fact that we should try to delve into the heart of the words of the sermon of the Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord John, who once moved the entire Jewish nation to the banks of the Jordan and prepared people to receive the Savior.
After all, this sermon was said not only for the people of that time, but for all mankind in all times. “Repent ye; for the kingdom of the heavens hath drawn near” – this is the beginning of the Forerunner’s sermon. This means that the Kingdom of God is close to all of us, but it depends on our will that it come to us, come for us, and the first condition for receiving this grace is repentance. Putting aside pride and forgetting all the worldly advantages with which we boast and puff ourselves up, each of us must confess our iniquities before God, directing our hearts with the hope of pardon and deliverance from sins to our Savior Jesus Christ, to Him alone.
There are words in this sermon that each of us should remember: “And even now the axe is laid at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which produceth not good fruit is being cut out and cast into the fire.” These words are terrible, for they mean that the ax of God’s wrath lies at the root of every person’s life, and …. one word, one wave of the Lord – and life is cut by the scythe of death. There is no repentance after death. An impenetrable abyss will be established between the saved and the lost. Endless, painful suffering will come for those who did not want to humble themselves and repent of the life given to them for this. In this present life, the Lord tolerates bad people along with good ones, and will endure until the Second Coming, and then He will cleanse His Kingdom of all the wicked, for no filthiness in it will be tolerated.
Repentance, according to the words of the Great Teacher of repentance – John the Baptist, should not consist only in tears and sighs – “Produce therefore fruits worthy of repentance.” Here we are required sincerely, from the bottom of our hearts, to wish to reject all our iniquities that our conscience has recognized – this voice of God in our soul, and having realized, begin correction of our life. And here it is necessary to work, for it is impossible without labor to acquire so great a blessing as the salvation of our souls. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of the heavens is being taken by force, and the forceful seize it” – this is testified by our Savior Himself. (St. Matthew 11:12)
We have recently entered the field of the New Year, and the conscience of each of us inspires us with one thought: it is necessary to renew our souls in this new year, to abandon many of the familiar sinful, impure and unclean things and change many of the things that have gone before.
Let us also remember that, according to the wise Providence of God, all the circumstances of our life are directed to our good, to our benefit, if only we will heed the ways of Divine Providence, for one thing pleases us and calls us to the glorification and thanksgiving of God; the other humbles us and brings us to the consciousness of our own impotence and poverty; the other – awakens from the sleep of carelessness and negligence, and the other – teaches patience and good-natured bearing of sorrows, hope in the omnipotence of God; the other – it keeps us from sin. It is impossible to enumerate the ways in which the Lord calls people to the knowledge of the truth, to the realization of their sins, to the correction of life, to the zealous fulfillment of the commandments of God, for “God our Savior … willeth all men to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of the truth.”
Let us lift up our fervent prayers to St. John the Forerunner – may the sermon on the repentance of the Baptist of the Lord John, the beginning of which opened on earth the Kingdom of saving grace, touch our hearts as well.